Troubled by steep declines in international tourism, U.S. mayors are urging the federal government to spend more money on marketing the United States and to make the entry process friendlier and faster.
Responding to a survey by the Travel Business Roundtable, mayors from the country's top travel destinations said tourism -- a driving force of the U.S. economy -- needed to be a top priority.
The number of overseas visitors to the U.S. has dropped 17% since its peak in 2000 -- and 20% in the top 15 cities -- costing more than $100 billion in lost visitor spending through 2005, according to the Commerce Department.
"The dollars derived from tourism are vital to running America's cities," said Jonathan Tisch, chairman of the business group, which is a coalition of travel industry executives.
In Los Angeles, tourism is expected to add $13 billion in direct cash to the economy this year. But from 2000 to 2005, the number of overseas travelers declined 27%. In Anaheim, home of Disneyland, the number of overseas visitors dropped 21% in the same period, Commerce Department statistics showed.
"The U.S. really needs to tell its story on its own terms just like every other modern nation does," said Mark Liberman, chief executive of LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau. "We can no longer assume that just because we're the United States -- or just because the exchange rates are terrific here -- we'll enjoy travel and tourism growth."
Tourism boosters blame lackluster marketing efforts. This year the Commerce Department will spend $3.9 million on marketing to foreign tourists. In comparison, Malaysia will spend $117.9 million.
As a result, tourism boosters believe that the U.S. is likely to cede to China in the next couple of years its position as the third-most-visited international destination. France and Spain are the top international tourism destinations.
Several factors are to blame, they say: America's declining image abroad, the difficulty and time it takes to get a visa and the perception that U.S. ports of entry are unfriendly, understaffed and overzealous about security.
Of the mayors polled, 73% said that entry procedures and treatment by U.S. immigration and customs officials reinforce negative perceptions of the country, according to the survey results to be released today.
Officials from the State Department said they agreed with the mayors and travel industry and have taken extra measures to expedite visa processing.
"We want those people to travel to the States," said Michele Bond, director of public affairs and policy at the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. "It's an honor when somebody walks in and says, 'I'd like to visit your country.' They should get courteous, efficient and friendly service."
Currently, visitors from 27 countries, mostly in Europe as well as Japan, Australia and New Zealand, are not required to obtain visas to travel to the U.S. Visitors from other countries must obtain them.
Bond disputed the contention by Tisch and other travel industry leaders that waiting times for a visa appointment in some countries were stretching to 120 days. More than 60% of consulates and embassies have appointment waiting times of fewer than 15 days, Bond said. And 85% have a waiting time of 30 days or less.
When waiting times in India stretched to two months last year, Bond said, the entire diplomatic team there helped extend office hours, adding morning, evening and Saturday hours. A new consulate will be opened in India later this year.
Now is the time for the U.S. to spend more on marketing overseas because the dollar is weak, said Noel Irwin Henschel, a member of the Commerce Department's Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.
"It's such a bargain to come to the United States from countries around the world," said Henschel, whose L.A.-based American Tours International brings in 1 million tourists from more than 70 countries each year.
More staff -- and service with a smile -- at airports would greatly improve the entry process, Henschel said. "That's something within our power to change."
In China, visitors passing through immigration checkpoints are able to grade their experience using buttons with a smiling or frowning face.
"Obviously the Chinese government is taking customer service seriously because of the Olympics," Henschel said. "It made me feel like this government really cares ... and that they were putting an emphasis on it."
Tisch, who is also chairman of New York's visitors bureau, said that international visitors were among the most sought after. In New York, foreigners comprise 18% of the tourists but account for 45% of the money spent.
"Let's make it easier," Tisch said. "Break through this logjam and have people come to this country."
The mayors, who are in Los Angeles for the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, are expected to have approved resolutions Monday encouraging the Bush administration and Congress to implement visa policy changes, including reducing waiting times. They are also encouraging more spending on promotion and customer-service training at ports of entry.
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Number of foreign visitors in 2005 and percentage change since 2000
*--* Change 2005 from City (in millions) 2000 New York 5.8 +2% Los Angeles 2.6 -27 San Francisco 2.1 -25 Miami 2.1 -29 Orlando, Fla. 2.0 -33 Oahu/Honolulu 1.8 -18 Las Vegas 1.8 -21 Washington 1.1 -25 Chicago 1.1 -20 Boston 0.8 -39 Atlanta 0.6 -20 San Diego 0.5 -29 Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla. 0.5 -12 Philadelphia 0.4 +11 Anaheim 0.4 -21
Source: Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, Commerce Department